The puke paralyzed me.
I had resituated my 20-month-old into a standing position atop my lap to soothe him, dear lord, to quiet him for one solitary minute. The previous five-ish days seemed like decades ago, the hectic mornings, hectic afternoons, and hectic nights drifting into a preterite eternity that no longer belonged to anyone, least of all the three of us. Apollo’s crying, and crying and flailing and crying some more, along with our having been trapped in a West African hotel room as homey as a coffin and Dana and I gnawing on cereal bars for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight breakfast –– it was a negative image of a picture of a happy family. And then the liquid blanket. White and chalky –– and yet comfortingly warm –– it had rainbowed down from Apollo’s precious little mouth onto my stomach and crotch. He didn’t move, my son, just loomed over me from between my outstretched hands and way too judgmentally for someone with bubbly gunk still dripping from his lips.
Had I not been so sleep-deprived and worn out, I might have done something, reacted in some way. Maybe I would have set his feet on the carpeted floor and aimed him at the nonstop yackers in the aisle across from us. Maybe I would have snatched the barf bag from our seat pocket and intercepted the vile cream of mushroom rocketing from his Super Mr. Handsome face. Or maybe, while cackling maniacally like that guy who won the Powerball twice, I would have returned him to the narrow articulation of the cabin, stood up, and clomped out the emergency exit into thin air. Alas, my brain had departed my body days ago. No, weeks. Years, actually.
I glanced to my right, and there, secured in a safe, upright position, was my half-drunk double whiskey on the rocks, my contraband. Flight attendants, apparently, are allowed to serve only singles and only with mixers, but in the few hours since taking off from West Africa for Amsterdam, headed to Minneapolis-St. Paul and eventually DFW airport, my new family had unintentionally but loudly and with much anxiety-filled movement produced a ton of sympathy from our fellow passengers and the flight crew. The lovely Miss Netherlands caring for our party surged with pity and joy, her practiced voice a lullaby, her melodic blue eyes glistening like the North Sea at noon. I, true to my bottom-feeding character, continued taking full advantage: “Another, please!” while looking peevishly at her and wiggling my empty rocks glass.
Still holding Apollo as if he were a ticking bomb, I felt my right hand begin to effectuate my selfish plan, begin to leave his pipsqueak body and float toward the glistening, delicious liquor –– I’m sorry, but a stiff goddamned drink seemed really goddamned necessary. Apollo only kept wailing, which, along with shattering the already pretty liberal bounds of airplane decorum, diminished my buzzlust. A little.
“Anth?” Dana inquired, studying me.
“We’re going,” I spluttered, and clarity hit me like that moment when you know exactly what you’re going to google when your plane lands (“toddler muzzle,” “toddler tranquilizer,” “heeelllp!!!”). As I pictured the visage that I was offering my wife, and the world, the pall of a dumbfounded, exhausted face staring off into the distance, right through the airplane to Pluto, Apollo and I rose as one. Our previous hours of rocking up and down and strolling back and forth now rendered as completely optional the command manifested by the perpetually illuminated please-remain-seated sign. Solvitur ambulando: It is solved by walking. I waded through the dread accumulating in the aisles like lake-effect snow, my arms wrapped tightly, protectively around the bony angel with the squinty smile, the partially collapsed lung from illness, and the four hernias, one of which made his scrotum look as if it were smuggling a banana. In the restroom, I laid down Apollo on the changing table and began mindlessly adjusting myself, because that’s what guys do. A breeze brushed across my tuft. I groaned. The last time I left my fly down was probably, oh, 1978.
The upchuck, upon accidental tactile inspection, was runnier and less creamy than my eyes had led me to believe. “Oh, that’s disgusting,” I said, briskly wiping off the investigatory fingers on my thigh, startled that someone so beaten down and stunned could summon so accurate, objective, and coherent –– and calm-seeming –– a statement. The fearless, possibly insane spirit that had just taken over my body must have been the same force that had inhabited my drunken form years ago at a nightclub so swanky it made me and everyone I was with feel old and obese. To a much taller, much more muscular drunken form who had cut in line at the bar, I was puppeteered by the spirit into snarling, “Don’t mind the rest of us, bartender! Make sure King Doucheface gets his Sex on the Beach!”
“Sleigh bells riiiiing,” I began singing, returning my attention to my chatty 19-pound major life change. “Are ya listenin’? / In the laaaaaane / Snow is glistenin’.”
It was July. One of the hottest on record. When the whole world appeared to be fanning itself. And we were coming from Africa. But “Winter Wonderland” was deadly effective.
“A beautiful siiight / We’re happy toniiight / Walkin’ in a winter wonderlaaand.”
One of my earliest and sensorially sharpest memories is of a wedding, somewhere near my hometown of Pittsburgh but too far for a day trip. Maybe Toronto. Or Philadelphia. A long time ago, when I was a child. Along with my parents and siblings –– Lenny, Virginia, and Adam –– I had stuffed myself into Daddy’s once-luxe-but-now-rattling black Coupe de Ville. My father was driving slowly around the downtown section of the city through the evening shadows in search of either the hotel we had booked for the night or the reception hall. I can’t remember. As the youngest, I was forced to sit between my parents up front. The spot was uncomfortable but gave me an enviable driver’s-eye view.
From our time in the car, which may have been long but cut short by my having napped or actually brief, I can recall only scattered imagery: the soundless navy blue horizon across which tiny, bright colors floated; buildings and their walls of shimmering eyes; hollow sidewalks; the white glare of streetlamps. What I remember vividly is a feeling. Around me the scenery rotated in gentle stops and starts. I forgot about my legs and arms, the warmth of my parents’ bodies next to mine, the distant glow of the dashboard, the musky scent of alcohol, cigarettes, and sweat emanating from my father. In my fragmented young mind, I was the calm, bodiless axis on which the universe gracefully twirled.
A few weeks after my father’s death from lymphoma at the age of 61, I lay on my side in the dark on my parents’ bed, on the second floor of our house at 309 Taylor Street. My mother was sitting by my stacked feet, both of us visible only by the light of the streetlamp right outside the window. Convinced that a slight bulge in my neck was cancerous, I had just returned, breathless, from my fifth panicked jaunt in a week to the emergency room, about seven blocks away. My mother had given up after my third trip on trying to reason with me. In my head, dozens of nameless and shapeless thoughts had congealed into a single, consuming sense of fear and confusion. From my fetal position, there was no mental information to parse, no general idea to articulate, only a single, peculiar vision: the pixelated sight of a hockey game on TV, of men in skates swiftly ramming into and crisscrossing one another. I allowed the action to flutter in my mind for a few seconds before doing what I believed was proper and chasing the players away, allowing me to refocus on fear and confusion, where I felt my attention belonged and where I wanted it to be.
During my progressive nervous breakdown, my sister learned of my sudden sprints to the E.R. As she, Mummy, and I were sitting in the living room one evening, Virginia said, almost incredulously, to our mother, “That kind of stuff doesn’t happen to us.” What she meant was that even though we were middle class, our family wasn’t the type whose fortunes fluctuated dramatically, between incredibly good and amazingly bad. We weren’t the kind of family that either won the lottery or was crushed to death in the middle of the night by falling satellite debris. What I heard was different. What I heard was that I was normal. Plain-normal. Ignorable. A mote of sprawling, twirling shit around the universal axis.
Life is not as hyper, nerve-wracking, and fear-inducing as it was around the time of my father’s death and definitely not as crazy as it was after Apollo’s arrival, when at home, Dana and I were so begrimed – and sleep-deprived and hungry – that we had to ask Waze for directions to our shower, when instead of thinking “life is grand!” every time our house became silent while my wife and son were home but out of sight, I thought, “Rapture or took off to upgrade to a better, handsomer, richer paterfamilias.” Still, life is delicate, a megaton bomb we tote around in a soggy paper bag. Apollo, who for the rest of his life will be dealing with the trauma created in his early years, which shows itself in not-so-good behaviors, was recently transferred from the elementary school he loves to a new school in the same district, a school with a “program” in place for kids like him. Dana and I quickly began referring to it as “Kiddie Prison.” In his first week there, Apollo was punched three times in the face and tackled twice by a fellow second-grader (who has also attacked other students and even teachers). Dana and I talked to two lawyers before appearing in the principal’s office at 7:05 the morning after the most recent assault, and now the bully has been placed with the older kids on the other side of the building. I used to dread phone calls from school or camp because I didn’t want to have to go pick up my son or calm him down after another one of his meltdowns or attempts to run away. Now I fear I’m going to pick up the phone and be told my kid has been hurt or worse by another student. This is an everyday sinking in the stomach that never goes away. And maybe never will.
Dana’s father, Papa Boo, who flew nighttime combat missions in Vietnam, continues to serve as our spiritual cicerone – WWPBD? (What Would Papa Boo Do?) – and I do everything I can to avoid becoming the subject of an Onion-esque headline: “Second-Grader Wakes Up Crying, Parents Put on Earmuffs and Go, ‘Lalalalala!,’ ” “Dad Watches Second-Grader for One Whole Day, Neither Dies nor Is Injured,” “Parents Take Second-Grader to Park, Bite Fingernails to Nonexistence Wondering Whether He Is Having Fun or Not.” To maintain perspective, I whisper to myself the title of an album by some late-’90s pop rock band whose name escapes me: “New Miserable Experience.” The sentiment reassures me that I am not alone in my possibly, probably self-created grief. The chief conduit to anxiety is family. Not the lovey-dovey parts, of which there are many, and not because I am some sort of magical fount of good times, c’mon. My parents were affectionate. I am affectionate. That’s that. I am talking about the never-ending challenges, the family members who dare to have opinions different from mine, the screaming until the windows rattle and the eyeballs pop, the loneliness among others, the professional frustrations fueling personal dissatisfactions. I don’t blame anyone. Certainly not my son. Definitely not my wife. As demanding as Dana is – she thinks “every battle” is implicit in the old saying “Pick your battles” – she is also extremely generous and kind. And loyal. I am convinced she could lift a 5-ton truck off my back or Apollo’s. The three of us have a ball together. Our family hugs, with our arms wrapped around one another, our cheeks and lips touching and smacking, are as close to heaven as this failing, never-very-good-to-begin-with Catholic is ever going to get.
My family is in my reemerging sense of hope and my contentedness. My family is in my soul.
In my bones is my sadness threatening despair.
With a sleeping Apollo in my arms, I bent forward and curled my body past Dana, who had the common decency to put down the SkyMall that she had begun scanning out of nervous boredom before addressing me. It’s OK, babe, I wanted to say. I’ve been eyeing that $25 wine glass holder/necklace, too.
“I think I had to pee,” I confided to her while taking my seat, “but I don’t anymore. Maybe I transformed it into energy.”
“Mmmyeah,” Dana moaned. She stuffed her fingers into her closed eyes for a moment before forcing herself back to her catalog. And to reality, the bone-rattling reality that I was creating for her now. “You need to use your brain for something other than holding up your face.”
I chuckled honestly, but before I could reply – seriously? why don’t I have to pee anymore? – she had begun turning pages.
“You can be crazy when you’re old,” she said, turn, turn, turn. “Not now.”
I tucked my chin into my chest to study my new son’s features. I can’t believe it, I said to myself. He is so beautiful, the most beautiful child I’ve ever seen. Forever, I thought, admiring the lines of his big puckering lips and his big almond-shaped eyes and his anthracite skin so smooth it could talk its way past White House security. That’s how long you and I are going to be together. And as much as I am going to be here for you and your pukes – and your poos and your pees and your sneezes that will send disgusting ropes of snot down your soap hunk-caliber face –– I am going to be here to watch you grow into an empathetic, intelligent young man. “Daddy, what’s a black hole?” “Ask your mother.” “Daddy, what’s a gerund?” “Ask your mother.” “Daddy, what’s a virginia?” “Ask your mother in 20 years.”
“Hold on,” Dana said before fishing through her bag.
From a white triangular tube, my beloved squeezed out a large dollop of lotion onto her right index and middle fingers. Per my marital training, I pressed my face toward her, closing my eyes and opening my mouth but keeping my lips together.
“Make sure you look miserable,” Dana said.
I looked at her and tilted my head to one side like a puppy. Her lotion-bearing hand was poised in the air, a salving benediction offered by a Byzantine Christ.
“Like your mom watching a funny movie,” she said.
“I’m stretching my face!” I whisper-yelled through a grudging smile.
The lotion and the motion (“the motion of the lotion”?) felt so soothing. And calming. And peaceful.
Except that that “Mom” part was bothering me. Enough times to become irritating over the past couple of years, my wife has compared my face to my dear old mother’s: overall puffiness, beady eyes, high black hair, pointy chin, droopy nose. I love my mom, and I think she’s great. However, I am a (still virile/virile-ish?) 48-year-old man, not an 85-year-old Italian-American woman. Telling me that I look like someone else – anyone else, preferably a dude – can’t be too much to ask. Especially from the 47-year-old woman who married me and has to look at me every day.
What could I have said, though? What could I have said to this wonderful power who saved my life with her love 20 years ago? This woman whose lithe, fiery red, gray-green-blue-eyed femality immediately demanded my undying devotion? The first time I saw Dana – at the company water cooler – the blood rushed into my heart like a million rednecks into the county’s lone Walmart the morning after Thanksgiving. I do, I murmured to myself. In good times and bad, I do.
What could I have said to this woman who was taking the time to moisturize my weathered face? With her really, really hot hands?
“Your hands are so hot,” I whined, retreating from her to look at them.
“Why’d you just look at my hands?!” Dana sang. “As if they’re going to say, ‘475 degrees’! ”
“I dunno,” I huffed, now completely confused.
“Just close your eyes and breathe,” she said, returning to the motion of the lotion, her touch definitely not as calming as it was only moments earlier. After a few seconds, her hands went away. I opened my eyes. Calmly. I looked at my baby boy.
“You want to hold him a minute?” I asked her. “It might be nice if you comforted him for a bit. He needs a mother’s touch.”
I also should probably be taking notes, I thought. Yeah, I should probably be writing all of this down. I kind of, sort of promised my wife that I would tell our story, that I would actually sit down to write a book about the whole (wonderful! awesome! effing stressful!) ordeal. Someday.
Dana wrapped up our worn-out little person in the new blanket that Miss Netherlands had given us. Apollo had destroyed the previous one.
“You should have seen them, Anth,” Dana said to me, her voice a hush but close. “It was like a disaster area here.”
Apparently, when a kid pukes on a plane, the flight crewmembers outfit themselves in Hazmat-like suits and disinfect every inch of the vessel within five feet of Ground Zero. Miss Netherlands and her compatriots lucked into the added bonus of also cleaning up after the two kids in the row behind us who, chain reaction-style, began hurling after witnessing Apollo’s spew.
“How’s he doing?” Robert asked.
This whole time, the otherwise talkative stranger next to me had not said a word, shifted uncomfortably in his seat, or offered to help. The pale middle-aged Midwesterner only sat there, peacefully enjoying his convenience-store thriller and openly luxuriating in his schadenfreude.
“He’ll be fine,” I lied. I looked down at my double whiskey. It had been drained. Did I do that? Did this G.D. hayseed next to me polish it off when I wasn’t looking?
“Yeah, I saw you guys giving him milk,” Robert started, a massive eyebrow hair pointing skyward like a wagging finger. “We typically burp our kids after that. It doesn’t matter how old they are. There’s just something about milk. It’s denser. Kids, the length between their mouths and their bellies is so short. You gotta remember that. It could be sitting down there, but it doesn’t take much for it to come back up.”
A minute portion of me was just being nice, keeping up my end of the social contract that says you can’t choose who sits next to you in public. The rest of me was intensely focused. Dana and I were so desperate for help that we would have believed anything that any parent or caregiver of any legal standing might have said to us. “Driving is good for toddlers’ hand-eye coordination? Here are the car keys, Apollo!”
“We’ve had him for – what? – five days?” I told Robert. “I feel like I’ve been his father for 20 years.”
Through squinting eyes Robert looked down knowingly and nodded repeatedly. He pressed his paperback across his thigh like a clamp and held it there before looking up at me and grinning expectantly.
“I just feel we’d all be getting along so much better if he knew a little language,” I went on. “He’s walking, but he’s not talking. And that’s a problem. He’s not even communicating. Baby signing? We’ve been trying it, and it’s not sticking.”
“Mmmfff,” Robert heaved, massaging his mouth and chin with his free hand as if to keep from screaming. “It’ll be fine. He’ll be talking before you know it. And then you’ll wish, haha, you’ll wish, well, ‘Maybe things were a little easier when he wasn’t talking back. Or calling me names.’ Haha.”
“Oh, no. Really?”
“Oh, yeah,” Robert declared. “Talking doesn’t make things any easier. Believe me. And the, uh, the, the frequency. It’s just nonstop. My oldest, Benjamin, he walks around the house all day, all day long, ‘I am Thor! God of Thunder! Son of Odin! I am Thor! God of Thunder! Son of Odin!’ ”
Dana leaned toward Robert: “Do you say, ‘That’s great. Can Odin pick you up from soccer practice today?’ ”
Adoption was always an option. I think. I genuinely can’t remember. Maybe it was, and maybe I simply blocked it out. Raising a child that your wife did not give birth to was unheard of where I came from. Growing up in an overcrowded Pittsburgh neighborhood in the 1970s and ’80s, I knew zillions of kids, and if any of my fellow Bloomfielders had been adopted, they never said. I also don’t recall many adopted kids in all of the movies and TV shows I watched and all of the books and magazines I read/skimmed. All that was ever spoon-fed to me was inexhaustible machismo: Jack Lambert, Rocky, Willie Stargell, Fonzie, Wolverine. With the exception of Superman, none of my heroes was adopted or in any way affiliated with an adopted child. Parentless? Yes. Adopted? No.
Dana had a completely different upbringing, one in which adoption was if not common then decidedly less novel than it was in my world. The third and youngest child of an Air Force colonel and a super-smart farm girl, Dana grew up all over the globe and was way worldlier than I ever was or would be. A lot of times, she and her siblings were minorities, the only white kids in their classes or on sports teams. The main reason she and I went international with our adoption is that we believe in global oneness. “We are the world” and all that. The fact that Dana’s best friend was vice-president of one of the largest international adoption agencies in the country did not exactly hamper our decision. (Note: The only advantage that my wife and I were afforded was a waived initiation fee. Two-hundred saved dollars later, and we were just like every other couple of prospective parents.) If Dana says adoption was always an option, it was.
Probably. The race issue also worried me. I knew strangers were going to look at my family differently, and I knew that people who had known me for decades and were aware that I had used the n-word derisively as a dumb kid were going to suspect my motives to be self-serving, redemptive maybe. In graduate school in my late 20s, as I was researching and writing my very important, very useful, and tragically though perhaps not unexpectedly unpublished master’s thesis (title: “Black Rap, White Fans”), I had my first psychotic episode. It was race-related (and undoubtedly fueled by some bad ganja). A classmate with whom I had partied on the town spent the night at my dorm room, and as soon as he left the next morning, I began hearing voices slowly whispering, “Anthony Mariani is a bitch,” “I’m going to kill you,” and, most worrisomely and curiously, “Anthony Mariani is [an n-word] lover.” I overturned my room, confident that my buddy, the classmate, had surreptitiously hid a playback or transmitting device somewhere among the furniture, books, syllabi, magazines, clothes, CDs, and the rest of the junk that constituted the domesticity of my student life. Finding nothing, I lay in bed listening to the susurrations, wondering and marveling, going from fury to bemusement and back again repeatedly. Eventually, the idea came to me to call him.
“What’s up, meathead?” my buddy answered pleasantly.
Rage struck me. “I can’t believe you!” I shouted, and then I demanded to know why he had brought “the devil” into my “house” – “I thought we were friends!” I screamed.
Swearing he had no idea what I was talking about, he agreed to return to my room to reassure me he was telling the truth. Seeing him and the fear quaking right beneath the surface of his sweet face brought me back to that dark place where I am consistently on the outside, consistently weird. And sad. Weird and sad.
My weirdness has always bothered me. The first time I felt it keenly, like a slow electric shock, was at Three Rivers Stadium on my 9th birthday. My mother thought that letting me take three friends to a Pirates game would be fun, even though I sucked at baseball, even though my two older brothers and I had never been seen together in the vicinity of balls, bats, and gloves, which wasn’t my choice. I ended up sitting on the end, Tony, Greggy, and my best friend at the time, Bryon Shane, to my right, in that order, with my oldest brother, Lenny, and his best buddy, Louie Miller, in the row behind us. By around the sixth inning, I was finally acknowledged.
“The Teek is warming up in the bullpen!” Tony gushed from next to me, referring to shutdown Buccos reliever Kent Tekulve.
I looked at the dugout, directly beneath us. I saw only the inert roof, “PIRATES” scrolling across the top.
“How can you tell?” I asked Tony, kind, benevolent Tony.
“What?” he barked.
“How can you see any of the players?” I went on. “They’re under the roof,” pointing below us.
Tony didn’t say anything. He simply stuffed another handful of popcorn into his mouth and turned back toward Greggy and Shane, and that was the last I saw of him, and of them, until we got up to leave 15 hours later.
Not knowing the difference between the bullpen and the dugout was not the problem. It was that I answered the question that my behavior, my subconscious, my true self had been asking for years: Why was I so easily ignorable?
The answers accumulated. During my tweens and teens, while every other boy my age was spending his after-school hours chasing girls or tossing baseballs or driving parents nuts by playing street hockey – where else? – in the middle of the street, I was racing home to watch Scooby-Doo. I collected magnets. I slept with a nightlight. I stifled tears of joy every time I saw the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life. I playacted romantic breakups alone in my room to the soundtrack of the Alan Parsons Project’s “Time” and Roberta Flack’s “Making Love.” I believed I could atone for sins by reading a few chapters of the Bible, the more boring the chapters, the better. I lied like crazy, boasting that I was related to second-string professional athletes (not first stringers, to make my lies seem more believable). I also claimed that alien tadpoles lived in the puddles in the parking lot behind my house, and I bragged in the endearing tones of a secret to fellow muscle heads that I was taking steroids when I wasn’t. Instead of a boombox I toted around Bloomfield a handheld tape recorder. My music of choice? Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers,” probably the most bizarre pop song of all time. On repeat. I cued it up when I spied kids in the distance. It was my walk-up music. My weird, sad, weird walk-up music. Why, I secretly whimpered to myself after the fantasy, and my friends, had drifted away, returning me once again to ruthless, unfeeling reality, couldn’t I be normal like every other kid? Why was I so damned into myself? And why was being into yourself so off-putting to other people?
I now know why. I’m afraid I’ve known all along.
Out jogging on a cool, clear, sunny afternoon recently, I saw a couple of teenage skateboarders doing handstands. One of the kids placed a palm flat on the ground and stretched his body skyward to the board that he was holding aloft with his other hand. The boy made the ground –– the flat, gray asphalt coursing through the neighborhood –– seem all-encompassing. A jolt zipped through my body. “I am a deer,” I intoned. “I am a deer. I am an 85-pound deer bounding through the forest of life.” After turning the corner, leaving the skateboarders behind, I bolted into a fat expanse of sun-kissed pavement. I felt at one with the terrain, at one with my body. Before the next corner, I slowed and looked around. I planted my left palm on the ground and launched myself forward heels over head.
As a different kind of jolt zipped through my body, a piercing agony based in several points simultaneously –– my right hand, my right arm, my ribs, my lower back, my left palm, my right knee, and the lower portion of my right leg –– I thought, I’ve done it. I’ve finally done it. As the pain slowly subsided, I remained horizontal on Bull Shoals Drive, looking up at the dumb clouds, thinking, “I’ve finally become my father.”
“Dangerously unique” and “accidentally hilarious” are a couple of relatively accurate ways to describe Leonardo Mariani.
As a 12-year-old in his birthplace of Pacentro, Italy, he was the head of his household, replacing Pupup, who, after the birth of his fourth child, my Aunt Louisa, had run off to join Mussolini’s army. Leonardo, as a young man stateside, could have been a champion boxer but was “too nice a guy,” my Uncle Pete remembers. “Leonardo would knock-a the guys down and then help-a them up! It drove everyone crazy.” The doomed pugilist learned to read and write English on his own. Clearly, on his own. In conversation, he mangled “Elvis Presley” into “El Vesley,” “Leonard Nimoy” into “Lenny Nemo,” “Hopalong Cassidy” to “Hiplong Cosa Dici” (pronounced kiz a deech), “ ‘Mean’ Joe Greene” to “Gene Go Greene.” You get the picture. As a father, Leonardo was never any farther than a gentle pat on the ass away. As miraculous as he was, he was also himself. He once spent 15 minutes in the bathroom with a pair of pliers pulling “the wrong damn tooth!” He once put a champagne bottle between his knees to open it. (A brief reenactment: Pop! “Yee-ow! Sumanabitch!”) After his drywall business – that he started with his two bare hands and one English-resistant tongue – was sunk by several bad investments that he had made, forcing him to sell his fifth and final Cadillac, he piloted a white four-door Buick Century with 103,000 miles on it. Though he had no license or insurance, his cup holder contained a tiny glass from home which he refilled, presumably at red lights or stop signs, with the contents of an open gallon of Carlo Rossi Paisano which rested on the floor of the passenger seat.
His hearing was suspect. (A brief reenactment of a phone conversation between him and Keeley Whatshername, a popular young blonde flirt with whom Adam engaged in ceaseless head games: “Hello?” Leonardo chewed into the receiver. “Who?! Adam?! No, he’s a-no home. Who’s this? Who?! Teepee?! Who?! Kiwi?! OK, Pee-wee.”) Leonardo scream-sang at church. He believed microwaves were radioactive. He un-ironically togged shorts, black socks, and brown sandals. Again, you get the picture. The point is that I was truly worried about passing down my Leonardo-ness. At home now, when I try to put a loaf of bread in the oven with the plastic wrapper still on or dump motor oil into the lawnmower’s gas tank or react (read: overreact) to a slightly larger-than-normal electricity bill by frantically unplugging every electronic device in the house A Beautiful Mind-style, Dana reminds me of a statement that I made early in our courtship: “That I, Anthony Mariani, never killed myself or anyone else accidentally or started World War III before meeting Dana Crumbliss has to be one of life’s greatest miracles.”
I wanted any child of mine to be him- or herself, but I didn’t want him or her to be too different, too much like me. Or my dad. Am I being selfish? Knowing that most adopted kids go through life feeling Other anyway? No. I don’t think so. As adoptive parents, Dana and I don’t have to explain a single thing to anyone other than maybe our immediate family. (Done.) And Apollo. We will always tell him he was adopted –– it’s not like we could fake it or would want to like they did as late as the ’90s.
I also didn’t want to feel any more different than I already do and always have.
Adopting a kid was sort of an admission of defeat, an announcement that somehow in my inability to see to fruition the primal function of procreation I was less manly, less virile than “normal” men. And I could not even be in the same room as Rocky or the Fonz. More than any other fear, being seen as inadequate irritated me. Dana and I may have seemed blasé on the plane ride from Fort Worth to West Africa, and for the most part we were. We had packed everything. Toys, baby food, clothes. Might as well dive into some Pynchon and two, three, 12 in-flight cocktails, right? But all the while I was secretly lamenting my new, knocked-down-a-peg status.
I’m not saying I’m not giddy we did it. I am. I’m even gladder we went international. Some of the stories we heard about domestic adoption were harrowing. A couple we knew had adopted a baby from an allegedly single mother –– when the erstwhile absent father heard, he immediately won custody, this nearly two months after the child had been placed in the adoptive couple’s home. The heartbreak must have been staggering. It’s impossible to even fathom.
Reunification appears to be the point of every law associated with adoption or foster care. As adoptive parents, we always come second, no matter how many diapers we change, how many hugs and kisses we deliver, or how many sleepless nights we endure because our child is sick or going through some emotional turmoil. The bio parents can insert themselves into our lives at any moment. “When you adopt a child, you’re also adopting the child’s birth parents” goes the old saying. Sorry, but that’s not happening here. Being 6,417 miles away from Apollo’s biological origins is a bonus that feels more like a necessity, considering.
I knew going into the relationship that adoption might be in our future. Not long after Dana and I had begun dating, neither of us seemed too ready to start a family. There was no limit to the amount of fucks I did not give. Here was this stunning, smart, funny woman choosing to be with me, this mopey Guido with the bad, tight clothes and abrasive Yankee ’tude who refused to grow up. It was she who consoled me after I once again had dissolved into tears over the memory of the death of my father; she who convinced me I should talk to a professional about my chronic sadness; she who was not only not repulsed but astonishingly delighted and warmed by my genuine corniness –– I wrote her (cliché-free) love poems (with proper pronoun/antecedent agreement), called her whenever I felt like it (which was often, not when I felt she should have been calling me), made her mixtapes, shared every thought and feeling with her, the whole dorky shebang. She and I fit. I like to think that we are jolly foils. As I am up for whatever whenever, Dana is forethoughtful. As I take everyone at his or her word, even absolute strangers, Dana will hold you upside down by your ankles and shake you until the truth comes tumbling out. As I am easily swayed by what other people think and am nervously unsure of my next thought or move, Dana does only what she thinks is best and only when the time is right. You will never see her wearing yoga pants in public, listening to any music created after 1998, or watching “chick flicks” or “real” housewives. (She’s a Game of Thrones/Handmaid’s Tale-type gal.) My wife can tell you the names and hometowns of every astronaut from the Mercury 7 and Apollo missions and explain the political and socioeconomic underpinnings of the Rwandan genocide, but ask her what “flossin’ ” is, and she will most certainly say that neither of us does enough of it. (Which is true either way you look at it.) She is not on Facebook, and, after about two months on “the social network” in 2010, she will never go near it again. “Most people in my past are in my past for a very good reason,” she says.
Dana wasn’t merely my romantic partner. She was a force of (perhaps exasperating) individuality, a nurturing mother figure, a sweet, vulnerable daughter figure, a confiding sister figure, and Wonder Woman all rolled into one. A friend once asked me, “Doesn’t it suck to be with one person all the time?”
“Not at all,” I remember answering. “It’s actually pretty liberating. Being with her is the only time I get to be my weird self and not feel lonely.”
The only part of me that remotely cared about biology was influenced by my desire to catch a glimpse of my beloved as a child. I thought that having a little girl together, to have been named Piper Bliss, would have afforded me that insight. I long ago stopped telling myself that that experiment would have failed. Genetics aren’t everything.
Good genetics and bad genetics.
As Dana and Robert moved on, Robert to his thriller, Dana to what will constitute peace in our new lives from here on out, I was still stuck on Thor, particularly at that one point in The Avengers movie when the God of Thunder feels compelled to defend the treacherous Loki.
“He is of Asgard!” Thor rumbles. “And he is my brother!”
To which the Black Widow replies, “He killed 80 people in two days.”
Thor: “He’s adopted.”
And pretty much everyone in the audience chuckled. Including Dana and me. The context was appropriate, a statement I stand by despite the 80 deaths. Had someone in real life made the comment in front of my wife and me, I definitely would have responded. I definitely would have said something like, “Adopted people are normal people just like you and me, or are you still living in the 1950s, Jack?” Dark humor is laced throughout the movie. As I cried to my former editor when she ruined my colloquial tone by changing “girl” to “young woman” or “skinhead” to “Tea Partier,” there are meaningful, highly impactful times and places for taking stands. Sitting in a movie theater crunching on popcorn and slurping Diet Coke wasn’t the best context for me to address the continued stigmatization of adoption by more than 90 percent of the planet. As fine as I think National Adoption Month (November) is, I’m not sure it’s changing the stigma much. Maybe my book will.